Summary: The rich young ruler’s question was off-base. It assumes that we can do one overriding deed to win God over; it is possessive; and it is self-centered.
I am not very good at giving gifts. I just have a hard time, when Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries roll around, a hard time giving the right gifts. It’s not that the folks I want to give to are picky or unworthy; it’s just that I can’t seem to figure out what they want and get it.
For more Christmases than I care to count, I have messed around and procrastinated until those last hectic days before the packages were to be opened. The space under the tree would be filling up rapidly, and my name would be on a lot of things down there, but I would be painfully conscious that for the love of my life I had as yet bought exactly nothing: nothing, nada, zilch. And so, in desperation, on the 23rd of December, or, I shudder to confess it, even after Christmas Eve services here, I would run to the store, grab something, wrap it up, put it under the tree, and hold my breath, hoping against hope that it was acceptable. Sometimes she would be polite and say that it was fine (although I noticed it went back to the store a week later); and sometimes she would come right out and tell me, “Not a good idea.” Frankly, do you see anything wrong with a set of snow tires for Christmas? As the shrinks will say, “Who knows what women want?” These were all-weather steel radials, too!
I just don’t seem to have the knack of giving gifts. So this past Christmas it seemed as though heaven had smiled on me when my wife said, “I think we should do something different this year. We both agree that there is nothing we really need. So let’s just pick up a few little things and not give each other anything big this time.” Sounded good to me. My gift-giving problem was solved.
Except that I saw this necklace. And I knew it was right, just exactly right. I knew it was the right length, the right style, the right everything. Silver. It was more than a dollar or two. It wasn’t a little stocking stuffer. It was a real gift. The kind I would have died to have thought of in previous years. But this year we had an agreement: no big gifts.
I thought about it a couple of days, and made a decision: I don’t care about the agreement. I don’t care about the plan. I don’t even care that she isn’t going to give me anything. I just want her to have this. And I fairly raced to the store and bought that necklace.
When Christmas Day came, and she saw it, there were three comments: one, “Oh, it’s beautiful, I love it.”; two, “What about our agreement? I didn’t get you anything’; and three, “Oh, it’s beautiful, I really love it.”
The thing that makes a gift a real gift is that we don’t have to earn it, we don’t have to deserve it, we can’t bargain for it, and all we need to do is to receive it. Just receive it. Somewhere down inside we think we should earn it or pay for it or give something in exchange for it. But no, a gift is a gift is a gift.
A young man came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” That’s an ultimate question. An ultimate question points beyond the here and now and looks toward the future. It points toward something that is all-important. It recognizes that there is a whole lot more beyond this day, this meal, this good time. It’s an ultimate question.
But it’s off the mark. This question is off the mark. It has built into it some very wrong-headed assumptions. “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus must have felt like I do sometimes; would you please let me answer the question I wish you had asked?
“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” What’s wrong with this ultimate question?
First, it assumes that there is one over-riding, overwhelming, good thing you and I can do in order to convince God to let us into His kingdom. It assumes that no matter what else we have done, no matter how many mistakes we have made, no matter how much madness we have indulged in, we can fix it. “What good deed must I do?” What is the one biggie I can do that will erase all the blunders of the past? What is the one silver necklace I can give that will make her forget about thirty botched-up Christmases?
The problem is that the young man and you and I have never really understood what keeps us out of the Kingdom in the first place. He had not really grasped what it is that separated him from God. The thing that separates us is sin and not sins. It is sin, not just sins.